02 Nov 2008
Boston Baroque’s Xerxes shows the way
Is Boston Baroque period performance’s best kept secret?
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
On Thursday 19th January, opera lovers around the world started bidding online for rare and prized items made available for the first time from Opera Rara’s collection. In addition to the 26 lots auctioned online, 6 more items will be made available on 7 February - when online bidding closes - at Opera Rara’s gala dinner marking the final night of the auction. The gala will be held at London’s Caledonian Club and will feature guest appearances from Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
Is Boston Baroque period performance’s best kept secret?
Certainly, Martin Pearlman’s band has been out there on CD as well as live performance since 1973, but somehow, they’ve never quite garnered the international renown that is more than their due. Perhaps that is down to the very nature of their home city — sequestered as they are in leafy streets and squares, an academic island insulated from the hue and cry of New York’s glitzier scene — let alone the period powerhouses across the Atlantic. Perhaps it is just their choice? If so, that’s lucky for their European competitors, some of whom might have to look to their laurels.
Boston Baroque have a fine record of producing Handelian opera with limited space and resources and with their most recent Xerxes, presented semi-staged by first-time opera director Paul Peers in the fine acoustic of Jordan Hall, (seating 1100), they have succeeded again. The key to this Xerxes was the integration of a fine cast of mainly young singers with a band that has this musical idiom in their very fibre, and a lean semi-staging by Paul Peers that used the limited space to good effect without making the mistake of imposing too much business onto music and a sparkling libretto that doesn’t need it. The musicians were seated centrally on the stage, and the singers moved around, behind and in front of them, using various exits (and the auditorium itself occasionally) to give visual variety. Dress was modern, unexciting but acceptable.
If Handel didn’t have much success with this opera at its London opening (it only lasted 5 nights) and was soon moving on into the more reliable world of oratorio, this is no reflection on his genius. It was simply that Xerxes was just too explorative, too outré, too challenging in its musical design, for the opera seria buffs of 1738. For a start, many of the arias don’t follow the set pattern of A-B-A of the time; there are less formal, more flowing sections of arioso and chatty recitative that move the action forward without so many regular stops for star-vehicle arias. And there is, of course, with the Elviro servant character, out and out comedy, almost buffo, that hardly fitted the pattern of the day. There is the usual romantic cats-cradle of mistaken identity, forbidden love, and jealousies of course, but this is a more tender, more emotional, exploration of humanity’s foibles than Handel often pursued.
The casting of baroque opera in the USA is less problematic than it used to be back when Boston Baroque was in the vanguard of period performance. More conservatories are now including period performance practice in their curricula, but it’s still not mainstream in the way that it often is in the capitals of Europe. For young singers fighting for work in America it’s tough, and they have to be adaptable — and take every opportunity to learn from specialists like Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque. This particular cast was, by and large, — considering the results — surprisingly inexperienced in the genre: the more to their, and Pearlman’s credit.
On the female side, only soprano Amanda Forsythe as the foxy, feisty Atalanta, forever interfering, could be described as au fait with Handel and if she was tempted on occasion to over-egg the comedy, it was an appealing performance that showcased some brilliant highwire work. Equally pleasing to the ear was mezzo Leah Wood in the difficult role of the wronged and rather out-of-sorts Amastre, although a little more volume might have helped her in her more declamatory music which she sang with commitment and a warm steady tone throughout. Marie Lenormand took the role of prince Arsamenes, often these days sung successfully by countertenors, and although she sang with great expressiveness her soft-grained mezzo soprano and natural femininity of movement rather prevented her from fully inhabiting the character — a lovely young singer, but rather miscast here. An exciting voice for the future is talented Texan soprano Ava Pine who sang the role of Romilda, beloved by both King Xerxes and his brother Arsamenes. She belied her inexperience in the genre to give a riveting performance that grew with every scene, her richly expressive soprano under fine control throughout, with plenty of dynamic on tap when needed.
With the male performers, without doubt the star of the show was male soprano Michael Maniaci in the title role. Maniaci, experienced in both baroque and classical style, has a growing and deserved reputation as a fine young singer with some recent major successes both in North America and Europe (his Armando in the recently released DVD of the Fenice production of Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto caused quite a stir), and this was his first attempt at a role which up to now has almost always, for obvious reasons, gone to period-specialist mezzos. It was the right decision as the role was perfect for his dark-hued soprano; it would be good to hear him as Xerxes again elsewhere, or even recorded at some future date. He has a unique timbre, with power to spare, a great facility for coloratura at dizzying heights and yet also the ability to spin long lines with tender expressivity when required. If Maniaci had the showpieces, then Michael Scarcelle enjoyed the comic possibilities of the servant Elviro, his agile dark baritone flipping up easily into pantomime falsetto and his athletic figure skipping easily up and down the auditorium steps for the “drag” scene of the “flower-seller”. Supporting the whole pyramid of Handelian voices was the resonant bass of Mark Schnaible as the dopey general Ariodate; it was good to hear this role sung by a low voice in its prime. The chorus of Boston Baroque sang and marched confidently as required, their obvious facility with the genre matching their excellent intonation and diction.
Throughout all, Martin Pearlman, conducting (when not pestered by Atalanta) his 25-strong band with verve, precision and great rhythm, kept a supporting eye and ear out for his singers and got the dynamic balance exactly right. This was high-class Handel, and if only Boston got to hear it for two nights, then that was Boston’s good fortune.
Sue Loder © 2008